A Mindful Way Of Eating
Written by Elaine Smookler, RP. Faculty, Centre for Mindfulness Studies. Columnist- “Inner Wisdom” Mindful Magazine , Faculty, eMindful
It’s late afternoon and you have a big deadline to meet in two hours. You can feel the tension building in your jaw and shoulders. Your nerves are jangled, your energy is flagging, and swirling thoughts of how angry your boss will be if you don’t make your deadline are making it difficult to buckle down and get it done. Before you know it, your feet are walking you to the vending machine as a booming voice within bellows, “M&M’s! Give me sugar! Now!” As you suck back the contents of the package the booming voice within softens and your mood elevates. You tell yourself, “Now for sure I’ll be able to focus!” And then the sugar high wears off and your world bottoms out. Before you can make it back to your desk that sweet relief is already gone. The reality of your deadline is still there, and your sugar crash has taken you even further down the doughnut hole of despair. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there, looking for the quick fix rather than real support. From time to time, emotional eating isn’t a big deal. It might actually bring you a moment of pleasure from the stress of the day. But if you habitually use food to keep your stress at bay, or to distract you from something you need to take care of, or because you’re bored, or anxious, or angry, or sad, or you feel out of control, or just to give yourself a break , you open yourself to all sorts of challenges. This can range from health risks like obesity, diabetes and cardiac disease, as well as unmet emotional needs, and increased stress. And at the end of the day, you still don’t feel any better.
The good news is that mindful eating can help us slow down and develop a balance between emotional eating and a more mindful approach to food, leading to a healthier connection to our body, overall health and well-being. Sound good? Want to give mindful eating a try? It starts with awareness.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is a practice that involves bringing your full attention to what is happening in the present moment — specifically to the experience of eating. By training your ability to be focused in the present moment you can notice both your inner experience and also become more aware of the food and the environment while you’re eating. All of these have an impact on our experience of eating.
Some Of The Benefits Of Eating Mindfully
When we eat mindfully we are counteracting the unhelpful habit of tuning out and are training our ability to tune in to all the goodies that come from being here now. Mealtime is no longer a battle with your willpower or a time of distraction. Instead, you are able to listen to your body’s inner technology and respond with care.
1. Increased enjoyment — Many of us look forward to our favourite foods and everyday meals, but when we actually eat them our attention is somewhere else…planning what’s next, ruminating about something that happened yesterday, or even thinking about the next bite we’re going to eat. As we shift our attention away from distraction and to our senses as we eat, we will have a much more vivid experience of the foods we’re eating. Crunchy, zingy, zesty, tangy, creamy, sweet and delicious — food can bring us enjoyment, vitality and well-being, while also offering nourishment to our cells.
2. Relaxation and Ease — As we slow down and anchor our attention on the experience of chewing each bite, the body can relax and we can feel a greater sense of ease. When you pay more attention to your senses, you have less attention available for rumination, worrying, analyzing or other distractions that can create stress. Consider your meals a stress relieving break!
3. Physical vs Emotional Hunger — Pausing and tuning in allows you to notice what you actually need. If you are really hungry — eat! If your hunger is emotional, no amount of food will be able to fill you. Instead, you might choose to slow down and become curious what’s leading you to food. Is it a desire to stuff the emotions down? Are you trying to give yourself a little boost before facing something difficult? Are you bored and just looking for something more interesting? With this awareness you can put the breaks on mindlessly turning to food and consider what would be more helpful at meeting your needs. And even if you do eat, knowing what you need to meet your needs can still help.
4. Hunger & Fullness — It takes time for the signals of fullness to reach your brain. Eating at a slightly slower pace also allows time for the natural feeling of fullness to develop. When you are no longer eating at the speed of light, you can respond to the joyful body signal: “Enough!” This amazing inner technology in the body allows us to naturally meet our needs, manage our weight and improve our health.
It’s Not Your Imagination… It Requires Mindful Effort To Change An Old Habit
Cultivating mindfulness strengthens our ability to be calm and to feel stable in the face of food cravings, life stressors, and the many distractions that compete for our attention. By noticing the thoughts, emotions and body sensations that show up when we automatically reach for food, we can stop, take a breath and recognize that this would be a good moment to be present, kind and gentle with ourselves, as we consider what we truly need in the moment. But this takes practice.
At first, as you bring awareness to what you are eating, it might feel awkward, or uncomfortable or just plain silly. Or breaking a habit, by suddenly paying attention, could feel like a threat. This is where awareness and intention comes in. If you really want to make a change, or even explore what might be possible, it will require some level of commitment to yourself and a willingness to explore your craving before you act upon it. Habit will always pull you toward the devil you know. Mindfulness invites you to use your effort and energy to stay open and curious as you train your focus. With practice, we discover new, gentler, healthier ways to take care of ourselves.
Mindful Eating Practice — A step by step guide!
Before you even pick up your food, take a moment to breathe and feel your body. Feel what it’s like to be here, and notice where your body makes contact with the floor, or chair. We can spend hours in our heads unaware that we even have a body. Paying attention to our physical selves can be an immediate prompt to be here now.
Once you know you are present, turn towards your food and bring your attention to the visual qualities of what you are about to eat. What colors are you eating? What do you notice about the shape or texture? Even if you have eaten this kind of food before, you’ve never eaten this food right in front of you before — what do you see?
Opening to the aromas in our food can trigger many body responses, including salivation, or a smile. How often do you take a moment to enjoy the scent radiating from your food? What happens when you give yourself even a moment to experience what the nose knows?
As you take your time with your food you might experience each bite as a symphony of sound. Listen to the sound of yourself chewing: what can you appreciate about your food as you listen to its sonic qualities?
Experiencing the sense-awakening qualities of your food might allow you to appreciate the juiciness, tang or earthiness of your meal, bringing you out of automatic pilot into the delights of the present moment. When you let yourself awaken to the color, touch, sound, taste and smell of what you are eating, do you notice your mood lifting? When you focus on eating do you notice if you are having fewer drifting thoughts?
Bite by bite you may also be noticing the shift from hunger to fullness. What are the sensations that you’re feeling in your body as you eat? The feeling of comfortable fullness (not overly full) is the body’s signal that it’s had enough — this is what it can break down and use efficiently now. How does it feel in your body when you are comfortably full? Perhaps you are aware that there are no more hunger pangs, your energy has lifted, and there is a subtle feeling of the stomach stretching. By stopping eating when you are comfortably full you are nourishing your body in a way that takes good care of you.
Mindful Eating Week At eMindful Life
Please join us for our Mindful Eating Theme Week to enjoy a variety of mindfulness topics about how mindful eating can enhance your life, and the opportunity to work live with skilled teachers and clinicians guiding you through this path to freedom and joy. Bon Appetit!
Elaine Smookler is an eMindful instructor and registered psychotherapist, with a 20 year mindfulness practice.